Each household in Saudi Arabia can recruit eight workers for household work, but Bangladeshi migrant workers recruited for the posts do not always end up working where they are supposed to
There is no such thing as a “free visa” for Saudi Arabia, however, more than half of the Bangladeshi migrant workers who travel to the country do so on free visas, according to various sources.
The term “free visa” refers to a stratagem by Bangladeshi recruiting agencies in collusion with Saudi Arabian nationals to send migrant workers to the country and have them find work illegally, the sources added.
Bangladeshi migrant workers who travel to Saudi Arabia on free visas are at grave risk as they have no guarantee of employment, food or accommodations. Many of the workers are also at risk of being deported for violating the conditions of their visas.
How does a ‘free visa’ work?
Each household in Saudi Arabia can recruit eight workers for different kinds or work, such as driving, gardening or cooking. Some of the households recruit workers to fill the positions through Bangladeshi recruiting agencies.
However, Bangladeshi migrant workers who travel on free visas are employed at their respective households in name only. Once they arrive in Saudi Arabia, they must find their own employment and accommodations.
Also Read- 8,427 expats fly to Saudi Arabia in 10 days
The Saudi households are paid $1,500-2,000 by the recruiting agencies for “sponsoring” the visas of the migrant workers. Some of the households also demand a portion of the income earned by the migrant workers at whatever work they find.
Any employment the migrant workers find is illegal, as their visas only allow them to work in the households specified.
Problems of ‘free visas’
Md Tuhin from Munshiganj returned to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia last year. He had travelled to Saudi Arabia as a gardener on a free visa.
“The scope for work and salaries of migrant workers who went to Saudi Arabia on free visas is extremely limited. I found some work where I was paid 700 Riyals a month, but I needed 400 Riyals for my accommodation and I had to pay my sponsor 300 Riyals a month as he allowed me to work outside his household,” Tuhin said.
“I agreed to pay him the 300 Riyals a month, as he would otherwise have informed police and sent me back to Bangladesh before recruiting another person through the recruiting agencies. However, police caught me working outside the household and sent me back to Bangladesh anyway,” he added.
The Covid-19 pandemic made the situation worse for Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia on free visas, as it limited work opportunities when they desperately needed them to pay for basic essentials and accommodation.
Punam Bhuiyan is a Bangladeshi migrant worker who had worked in Saudi Arabia for 14 years before recently losing his job. He told Dhaka Tribune that workers visited him every day with requests to arrange work in Saudi Arabia.
“The workers do not really understand that there not many work opportunities in Saudi Arabia,” Punam added.
What do experts say?
Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) Chair Dr Tasneem Siddiqui said: “Free visas have to be stopped at any cost. The Bangladesh government wants to boost manpower export numbers, which is why free visas are continuing.
“The Saudi government is also not helping to resolve the problem. They are allowing a family to employ eight persons for household work, whether the family needs that many people or not. We need to pressure the Saudi government to stop free visas, as they are just using them to get workers for cheaper salaries,” she added.
The RMMRU chair further said Bangladeshi recruiting agencies were not even trying to get proper visas anymore and illegal activities such as free visas might impact future manpower exports.
Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) Secretary General Shamim Ahmed Chowdhury said: “Most of those who returned recently from Saudi Arabia went there on free visas. Due to Covid-19, there was no work there and no money to renew work permits, so they had to come back to Bangladesh.
“A Bangladeshi migrant who goes there must have a sponsor. If he wants to work at another place than that of his sponsor, he needs a no-objection certificate and the new employer has to maintain all documents for transfer of the sponsorship. If this process is not maintained, the migrant worker is working illegally and the police will send the worker back to Bangladesh,” he added.
“The Saudi government should stop issuing these kinds of visas and Bangladeshi diplomats have to press the Saudi authorities on the issue,” he further said.
According to the BAIRA secretary general, free visas are always discouraged as they create various problems, such as resulting in migrant workers coming back without any remittance.
In 2020, a total of 181,218 Bangladeshi went abroad. Among them 133,997 went to Saudi Arabia, the single largest market for Bangladeshi migrants.